Holo Mai Pele

October 10, 2001

Holo Mai Pele

Halau O Kekuhi

Great Performances: Dance in America

Hawaii Theatre Center

Honolulu, Hawaii

Broadcast date October 10, 2001: check local listings

Reviewed by Lucinda Keller

Hawaiian hula kahiko (ancient dance) is a true living treasure. The movement is often performed low to the ground, with fast stomps accompanied by the haunting chant and guttural cry of the descendants of the ancient Hawaiians. Audiences will have a chance to learn what makes hula so compelling when public television affiliates air Holo Mai Pele this is first time the work has ever appeared on television or film. The documentary is a collaboration between one of Hawaii’s oldest and most prestigious hula halau (performing group/schools) and some of the best makers of dance film.

Holo Mai Pele,
a milestone in Hawaii’s forty-year-old cultural renaissance, has played local stages since 1995. Halau O Kekuhi broke ground by presenting traditional hula in a newly expanded form, telling an ancient saga in a three-hour work. Pualani Kanaka’ole Kanahele and her sister Nalani Kanaka’ole are the kumu hula (teachers and artistic directors) of Halau O Kekui. They adapted a complex legend passed down from their ancestors in chant and dance. Theater audiences have been captivated by this intricate tale of the goddesses Hi`iaka and Pele in several acts, set on each major Hawaiian Island and populated by scores of characters. There is a love triangle, a battle with a giant lizard, a skirt with magic powers, sorcerers, and a maimed seer.

Holo Mai Pele
has been dubbed the first hula opera. It combines full-length dance pieces, the chants from which they’re derived, and abbreviated translations as subtitles. In an onscreen interview, Pua Kanahele explains the storyline and intricacies of the production. She says that their traditional steps ground the dancers to the earth, that their arms cutting circles on different planes describe the wind in the trees and the currents in the water.

The movement is very specific to a certain wind in a specific tree. It might be the delicate red lehua blossoms of the ohia tree, associated with the life-giving powers which Hi`iaka discovers on her epic journey. The rustle of raffia skirts in half-pivot turns is like the dry swish of the pandanus tree, and signifies Pele’s destructive lava. The dancers wear ankle and wrist rattles and carry slit bamboo sticks at their waists. Seated dancers hold an ipu gourd in one hand, which they slap with other hand, tap on the ground, and swing overhead with a wide sweep of the torso, while chanting in Hawaiian, “The hot mountain is overrun with fire, smoke encircles the uplands, the land of Pele’s clan.”

Emmy-winning director and co-producer Catherine Tatge has produced a number of programs for PBS’s Great Performances, including Martha Graham: The Dancer Revealed, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre: Three by Three, and American Indian Dance Theater: Finding the Circle. Director of Photography Thomas Hurwitz won an Oscar nomination for his Dancemaker documentary on the Paul Taylor Company. Alan Adelman’s credits as lighting designer include live dance performances as well as film/television collaborations with New York City Ballet, Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp, and Bill T. Jones.

Pua Kanahele has said that working with the director and crew caused her to clarify ideas that have been assumed in her family for generations. Gorgeous images of Hawai`i are used as expository transitions and they are true to the color, sound, and feeling of the islands’ natural elements. The forest is actually that lush, the ocean that blue, and the dance that moving. Holo Mai Pele is dense with information and rich with the dance legacy of Hawaii.

The video is a co-production of Pacific Islanders in Communications, International Cultural Programming, Thirteen/WNET New York. A video and companion book will be available in the fall.